12 Best Places to Visit in Canada
This Commonwealth country is actually the world’s second largest. Most of that land area, however, is complete wilderness. That is certainly one of the draws of Canada: the utterly vast expanses of nature to really and truly get lost in. Its national parks are truly massive, offering picture-perfect vistas. Mountaineering, hiking, boating, swimming, cycling – there’s a lot of rewards here if you’re a fan of the great outdoors. Spot grizzly bears in Banff National Park, hit the powdered slopes of Whistler, or taste your way through some of Vancouver’s freshest wild salmon. There’s something in Canada for everyone.
Away from the stunning nature of Canada – also including the Great Lakes Region – you can explore its culture and history. Get stuck into the Francophone region of Quebec, the sparkling skyscrapers and East Asian culture pockets in Vancouver, Toronto’s elegant Victorian architecture, and Canada’s ‘château style’ grand railway hotels and neo-gothic public buildings in Ottawa. Plan your trip to this wonderful travel destination in North America with our list of the best places to visit in Canada.:
The largest city in Alberta, Calgary is situated between the Canadian Prairies and the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. After oil was discovered nearby in the early 1900s, Calgary boomed into what is now one of Canada’s largest metropolitan areas, attracting thousands every year to its world-famous rodeo event, the Calgary Stampede.
While Calgary is comprised of several neighborhoods, the downtown core is where the commercial, entertainment and shopping districts are located. Stephen Avenue Walk and Barclay Mall are two popular pedestrian zones.
Calgary is home to a large number of skyscrapers with observation decks offering incredible views of the city and Rocky Mountains. The most notable of these are The Bow and Calgary Tower. There are also many family attractions including a world-class zoo, amusement parks, botanical gardens, a hands-on science center.
While the city plays host to several annual festivals of music, film and dance, the most famous is the Calgary Stampede, an Old West celebration held over ten days in July with rodeos, chuckwagon races, parades and competitions.
It may only be a small town of 1,000 residents, but Churchill draws huge crowds every year to see its most famous inhabitants, the polar bears. Nicknamed the “Polar Bear Capital of the World,” Churchill is located in the Manitoba province on the Hudson Bay shore. In addition to polar bears, Churchill is also the place to go for viewing beluga whales, birds and the aurora borealis.
The best time to see polar bears in Churchill is October and November when the bears migrate to the shores, hunting for marine food. The tourism industry here provides tours and vehicles called tundra buggies for the safety of both tourists and the bears.
In the summer months, tour operations take people out on the water to see the beluga whales, which migrate here by the thousands. Some tourists even don swimsuits and swim with the whales. With more than 270 species of birds, Churchill is also a birdwatcher’s paradise. Thousands of birders visit the area every summer to glimpse species like snowy owls, gyrfalcons, stilt sandpipers and tundra swans.
Churchill also presents an excellent spot to see the aurora borealis, or northern lights. Normally, the peak time to see this natural marvel is between January and March. The primary ways of reaching Churchill are by airplane and train. Train connections are from Winnipeg and Thompson.
10. Cape Breton Island
While it’s located in north-eastern Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island was once its own independent colony until it was forced to merge in 1820. As it welcomed thousands of Scottish expats in the early 19th-century, it remains the only place in North America where you’ll hear Gaelic spoken, with a host of traditional Scottish music concerts on offer.
In addition to the Scots, Cape Breton also has a healthy French population, with the 18th-century Fortress of Louisbourg a major highlight. A fascinating Mi’kmaq community adds to the pleasant mixture of cultural influences.
Whale watching here is unforgettable. Sightings are just about guaranteed at the northern tip (the top of the island), which you can reach with a boat or kayak tour – the scenery alone makes it worth the trip. Among its spectacular landscapes, the highlight is undoubtedly Cape Breton Highlands National Park with its phenomenal Cabot Trail and gorgeous lookout points. Don’t forget the scenic fishing villages such as Bay St. Lawrence, where you’ll find some excellent seafood.
Located at the meeting point of three rivers, Ottawa is Canada’s capital city, home to the sixth-largest population in the country – and growing. Unusually, the city is bilingual. Don’t be surprised to hear people speaking a mix of English and French; both are first languages here.
Previously known as Bytown, Ottawa was once a lumber town, with many mills built along the Ottawa River in the middle of the 19th century. Today, it’s a beautiful green city filled with blissful parks and waterways. Biking is popular in the summer months, and these trails are converted to ski trails come winter. Running right through the heart of the city, the Rideau Canal is a must visit. In winter the canal becomes the world’s largest ice skating ring.
One of the main things to do is visit the Byward Market. But if you’re interested in history, you’re in for a treat. While it may not be Canada’s official cultural capital, Ottawa is home to some spectacular historic buildings, such as the National Library and Archives – the fourth largest library in the world. As the nation’s capital, Ottawa is home to many federal establishments including Parliament Hill, the government seat where the ceremonial Changing of the Guard takes place daily during the summer.
Thanks to a couple of spectacular mountains called Whistler and Blackcomb, the Whistler resort is the largest and most famous alpine ski destination in North America. Located in the Coast Mountains of British Columbia in western Canada, Whistler is a two-hour trip from Vancouver along Canada’s most scenic drive, the Sea-to-Sky Highway. At the base of the two mountains are three quaint villages, Whistler Village, Creekside and Upper Village. The Peak 2 Peak gondola transports visitors from the villages to the mountains.
Whistler had humble beginnings as a logging town. After the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley, a ski resort was built on London Mountain as a potential destination for the 1968 Winter Olympics. However, this wasn’t achieved until the 2010 Winter Olympics. In an attempt to steer away from its misleading name, London Mountain was renamed Whistler Mountain because of the whistle-like sound made by the native hoary marmots living in the mountains here.
Today, Whistler has many world-class ski resorts and offers extraordinary views from its mountain slopes that bring adventurers back year after year. Aside from snow sports, the mountains also make for great hiking and rock climbing opportunities.
7. Vancouver Island
Vancouver Island, named after the British explorer George Vancouver, is the largest island off the West Coast of the North American continent. Surrounded by the waters of the Pacific, it’s a truly photogenic island filled with glistening lakes, impressive waterfalls, magical fjords, and glacial mountains that are popularly explored by hikers. Outdoorsy travelers are attracted by the weather; it has the mildest climate in Canada.
The island is best known for the gorgeous Butchart Gardens, the surf town of Tofino and the wilderness in the north, where one can catch a ferry to Prince Rupert, and another to Alaska from there. Vancouver Island is also a wildlife hotspot. Not only does it offer some of the best whale watching in the world – you can even kayak with orca – but it’s also a great spot for bird watching and grizzly bear sightings. As the island is sparsely populated, with most of the population living in Victoria – the capital of BC – you can really soak up the magic of the outdoors.
One of the best places for a walk in nature is in Strathcona Provincial Park, where you’ll find most of the spectacular scenery on the island. Visit Cathedral Grove with its ancient forest, or tee off on one of the many fantastic golf courses.
6. Quebec City
Quebec City may be the capital of the Quebec province in eastern Canada, but its French heritage, architecture and language make it appear more like a charming European village.
Perched on a hill overlooking the St. Lawrence River is Vieux Quebec, the city’s historic district, which is the only North American city still retaining its original walls. A walk along the cobblestone streets of the Old City offers encounters with old buildings like the Citadel and historic sites like the Place-Royale, the area where explorer, Samuel de Camplain, established the first North American-French settlement. Cafes, shops and bars are peppered throughout the Old City.
The city’s icon, the stunning Chateau Frontenac, is regarded as the most photographed hotel in North America and offers tours even without an overnight stay. Another impressive hotel is the Ice Hotel. Open from January to April, this unique hotel features rooms with beautiful ice sculptures.
Outside the city center are several beautiful and historic parks like Montgomery Falls and Plains of Abraham, which offer breathtaking waterfalls, outdoor recreation and history of the area.
The sprawling city of Toronto is the most densely populated city in Canada, with nearly three million residents. Located on the shores of Lake Ontario, Toronto forms part of the Golden Horseshoe region, which encompasses the area from the lake to Niagara Falls.
As the provincial capital of the Ontario province, Toronto is also one of the most multicultural cities in the world, with just shy of 100 ethnic communities calling it home. It’s one of the only places in Canada where more than half of the residents were not born in the country. But it’s this melting pot that makes Toronto what it is. Some of the street signs are written in different languages, and diverse neighborhoods have their own distinctive cuisine.
There’s so much culture to be found in the inner city proper amongst its towering skyscrapers and thousands of multi-cultural restaurants. One of the most popular attractions on the tourist trail is the CN Tower, the tallest free-standing structure in the world (until it was trumped by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai). It offers an extraordinary uninterrupted view of the city from its observation deck, skypod, and the 360 Restaurant. But it’s worth it for a ride up in the glass-enclosed elevator alone!
See also: Top Tourist Attractions in Toronto
Montreal is the second-largest city in the Quebec province, located where the St Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers meet. Montreal is Canada’s capital of culture. It’s also one of the most diverse, energetic, welcoming, and forward-thinking cities in North America, with modern street art, an energetic breed of musicians, and a great party scene in its newer parts.
While English is spoken, it’s not the most common language; it’s actually the second-largest city in the world to speak French as a first language outside of France. So it’s easy to see why it’s earned its nickname as the ‘Paris of North America.’
Montreal’s cityscape is a pleasure to visit all year round. It’s especially beautiful in autumn when the trees turn burnt orange around the iconic cityscape. Old Montreal is the highlight with its cobbled streets, quaint museums, and historical buildings, some of which date back to the 17th-century. Don’t miss the chance to climb up the clock tower in the Quai de l’Horloge for some exceptional views over the St. Laurence River and the city in the distance.
Exciting shopping districts include the downtown underground complex, the Carrefour Laval mall and the colorful Bonsecours Market.
3. Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls is a series of three awe-inspiring waterfalls situated on the border of Canada’s Ontario and the United States’ New York. The Ontario side of the Falls is called Horseshoe Falls and offers the best views and most attractions. The immediate area surrounding the Falls is a premier tourist spot teeming in observation towers, restaurants, souvenir shops, casinos and high-rise hotels.
Its sister city in New York is known as the ‘honeymoon capital of the world,’ and one of the only places where you can get a marriage license without a waiting period. Those looking for both romance and adventure will find it here, with a long list of exciting things to see and do.
One of the best places to view the Niagara Falls on the Ontario side is from Queen Victoria Park where the Falls are illuminated and fireworks are displayed nightly during the summer. See them from above or below – it’s your choice – with helicopter tours, jet boat tours, an observation deck next to Skylon Tower, and elevators that take you down behind the falls.
The massive city of Vancouver is one of the largest in Canada. Located in south-western British Columbia, it’s a famous foodie hotspot – especially for seafood, like its celebrated freshly caught prawns and wild salmon. Because of its melting pot of cultures, you’ll find no shortage of mixed cuisine here, making dining out one of the city’s simple, but by no means underrated, pleasures.
Vancouver’s star attraction is Stanley Park. Covering 1,000 acres of woodlands, gardens and green spaces, this park features an aquarium, water park and the picturesque Seawall. Some of Vancouver’s other top sites include Granville Island’s remarkable food market, Chinatown’s vibrant array of shops, restaurants and stunning gardens, and Canada Place’s waterfront complex housing the Vancouver Convention Center.
Nicknamed the ‘Hollywood of the North’ because of its huge TV and film industry, Vancouver is also home to the fourth-largest cruise ship terminal in the world. As many as 900,000 passengers pass through the terminal every year, with many cruises making their way onwards to Alaska.
With both beaches and ski slopes within easy reach, Vancouver has been rated as one of the world’s best cities to live in. Home to happy, tanned, and active people who spend their days rollerblading, jogging, and dog walking along in the Seawall or playing a game of volleyball on Kitsilano Beach, Vancouver is a big destination for outdoorsy activities. Don’t leave without the chance to take a dip in Canada’s longest pool – it’s almost three times the size of a normal Olympic swimming pool!
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Vancouver
See also: Top Tourist Attractions in Vancouver
1. Banff National Park
Tucked away in the Canadian Rockies, Banff National Park is the oldest national park in Canada, and also one of its largest. Because of its sheer size and remote location, many people are drawn to this untouched piece of the globe for the isolation alone – outside of Banff and Lake Louise – the park’s two points of civilization – that is.
There are two popular routes through the park, but it doesn’t matter too much which you choose. Both are filled with jaw-dropping scenery, from glistening multi-colored lakes and dramatic canyons to beautiful viewpoints and majestic waterfalls. Whether you have your own car is not important, as shuttles service most of the key attractions in the park.
Active travelers will be in their element here with the chance to snowshoe or paddle the lake, while wildlife watchers will have an adventure all of their own. Banff National Park is filled with animals – the most eagerly anticipated sighting being, of course, the grizzly bear.
The town of Banff is the park’s primary settlement, offering the most variety of lodging, shopping and dining. Accessed by the Icefields Parkway, Lake Louise offers luxurious accommodation in a gorgeous setting of turquoise lakes and majestic mountains. Lake Minnewanka and Sunshine Meadows are other smaller villages.
See also: Banff Attractions